Ghillie Basan Blog

Food Safari

The story of food is a fascinating one – it takes us on a journey through the history of ancient civilizations and conquering empires, following the routes of migration and trade, which have influenced the traditions of the different culinary cultures of the world. In most cultures food plays a significant role in religious feasts and rituals; births, marriages and death; hospitality and survival. In my experience, food opens the door to these cultures, as most people are passionate about their food and love to talk about it and share what they have.

This is what I try to bring to my books and to my workshops and I’m flattered that people come from all over the world to cook with me – many from Europe, but some from as far away as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I have also had Middle Eastern chefs come to my remote home in the Scottish hills to explore the breadth of Middle Eastern cooking to get new ideas for their restaurants. It gives me great pleasure to take people on a food safari as we cook, chat and laugh together so that people leave feeling inspired and enriched by the experience of cooking world food in a wild part of Scotland. I also enjoy travelling to different parts of the world to create bespoke workshops, uniting cultures and traditions for private groups.

In essence, food is memory – a mouthful can transport you to another country, or another time. My blog is my story, my safari through food. I hope you enjoy it.


Bush picnic in Samburu, Kenya

  • Spirit and Spice Website
  • Moments in a Bottle

    May 2017

    I’m sitting on my deck with a cup of strong, sweet coffee (just how I like it), gently caressed by the warmth of the early morning sunshine cutting through the fresh spring air, listening to the tuneful sound of the oyster catchers and lapwings nesting on the moor, the machine-gun croak of the grouse on the hill, the haunting beat of the snipe’s wings, and the melodious trills of countless birds in the trees. It is 6.30 am, the countryside around me is alive with music, and it is truly delicious!

    If only I could bottle these solitary moments of pure relaxation and appreciation. When the pawpaw is hitting the fan – as South Africans say – these solitary moments are invigorating and life-saving. Just like the height and physical exertion of a good walk in the hills with the dogs, these moments help to put things into perspective. Again, I wish I could bottle them and have a whiff or slug when the feeling of being on a sinking ship overwhelms me.

    Instead, I am busy bottling my fruit gins, made from wild rowans and my garden black currants and gooseberries, and two vodkas – one flavoured with saffron and cinnamon, the other with apricot and rose – all for clients and guests and the odd glass for me and my friends! I may not be capturing that feeling of comfort and freedom in a bottle but the gin and vodka are pretty damned good!

    There is no getting away from the fact that my home is special – partly because of the location and partly because it so warm and welcoming – and over chats with my children recently we have all agreed it is a place that sits firmly in our hearts and will always be part of us so I must continue to try and save it and everything that I have created here. All the long winter nights of working on old and new ideas and getting to grips with social media are beginning to kick in and, thankfully, there is light on the horizon but it will be a long time before I can breathe a huge sigh of relief and feel that I am finally back on my feet.

    I am now co-presenting the Curry Club once a month on Radio Scotland’s Kitchen Café, as well as bits and pieces on the rest of the programme; I have started involving myself with the local whisky industry by creating a venue and dishes for ‘spirit and spice’ which seems to be going well – so far – and I am about to start my new catering business, Mezze on the Move, which involves taking a selection of mezze to people in their fishing huts, shooting lodges, picnics on the hill, or a party in their home and I have added a little offshoot called Mezze chez Moi  so that people can book an evening of mezze in my house – just got to get the Council to tick all the boxes and then I’m good to go!  Other than that, I am desperately trying to complete enough words of a book I have been writing for several years to give to my literary agent – it is not a food book, although it has food in it. When it comes to new cookery books, I have discovered that I am only needed to help celebrities write theirs as the new marketing consensus is that I don’t have enough social media ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ to write my own – 40 books to my name and a lifetime of travel and culinary experience don’t seem to count!  I was born in the wrong era – when first-hand travel and researched knowledge actually mattered!  Ouch!!!

    In between the things I’m trying to get off the ground, I still visit my mother once or twice a week and, after a roller-coaster of a winter when there were moments I really thought she was dying, she seems to have perked up and is on good form. She recently celebrated her 91st birthday and thoroughly enjoyed her wee party with my children and her old neighbours and remembers exactly what she was given as presents as she wears the shirts and jewelry almost every day.  I wrote an article about my mother’s dementia and how it has impacted on my little family, emotionally and financially because of having to give up everything to care for her, but I have been surprised to find that, even though editors and charities have been moved by it, nothing has happened with it. This is such a shame as I am sure there would be others who might be able to relate to it, or even seek comfort from it as dementia is a very difficult illness to deal with, particularly for the family, and it needs to be talked about!

    I have decided I will probably never understand the way things work nowadays and that I will always be on the periphery because I’m not good at self-promotion and I’m not driven by money but, like we all should do, I must constantly remind myself that what I have is unique. I have had an interesting journey so far in life, lots of amazing stories and people and, of course, struggles galore. I have dealt with things my way, made absolutely no money, but have given every ounce of energy and love that I have to my children and, latterly, to my mother. That makes me happy. As does the company of good friends and, most recently, I have my dear friend and birthday twin, Alice, to thank for flying all the way up to see me to help sort out my social media! I think that is worth celebrating, so I’m off to pour a glass of red wine for myself while I leave you with a family favourite from Turkey where it is served with meatballs in the Ottoman tradition but we bake it in the oven at home and have it on it’s own.

    Baked smoked aubergine in a cheese sauce

    Serves 2-4 (depends on appetite!)

    3 large aubergines
    40g butter
    roughly 2  tablespoons plain flour
    800ml (you may need a little more)
    300g cheddar cheese
    120g Parmezan cheese
    salt and freshly ground black pepper
    Parmesan for grating on top
    Preheat the oven to 200F/mark 6/200C

    Place the aubergines directly on the gas flame of your cooker, or over a charcoal grill. Smoke the aubergines for about 10 minutes, turning them from time to time, until soft and the skin is charred (over a charcoal grill, the skin will just toughen instead of charring). Place the cooked aubergines into a plastic bag to sweat for a few minutes.

    One at a time, place them under a running cold tap, and gently peel off the burnt skin, taking care to keep the aubergine in tact. Hold the peeled aubergine by its stalk and squeeze out the excess water. Put aside and skin the other one. Place the peeled aubergines on a wooden board, chop off the stalks and chop the flesh to a pulp. Put aside.

    In a heavy based pan, melt the butter. Stir in the flour off the heat to make a thick roux. Add the milk and return to the heat, stirring all the time, until smooth and thick. Beat in the cheddar cheese, a little at a time. Beat in the aubergine pulp, followed by the Parmezan, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

    Tip the mixture into a baking dish and sprinkle a generous layer of grated Parmesan over the top. Place the dish in the oven for about 25 minutes, until the top is nicely browned. Serve immediately with fresh bread and a fresh, green salad.  That’s all you need!


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  • Gold and Laidback Laksa

    February 2017

    There are some cultural traditions that make a lot of sense. For example, if you get married in countries like Turkey, the Middle East, parts of Africa, India, Pakistan and Southeast Asia, the bride and groom are given gifts of gold and silver – this can be in the form of coins, watches, mirrors and jewelry, special bowls and cups – but the idea is that the quantity and value of these gifts will signify wealth as well as serve a practical purpose – should the couple be in need of money they can sell some of these items. Depending on the location and the wealth of the family and the community, other practical gifts will be given too, such as blankets, cooking utensils, and livestock.  The newly weds can begin their lives together and survive with these simple things and, if they need to find money in the future, there is a way of obtaining some.  It certainly makes more sense than our cultural equivalent of extravagant wedding lists comprising designer tableware and household goods from a specific store.

    It was when I was thinking about the plight of the Syrian and Libyan refugees who must have given up all their wealth to pay for the perilous boat journeys–across the Mediterranean – every cow or goat and every last bit of jewelry would have been sold in the hope and belief they would kiss freedom on the beaches of Europe – that I thought that this could be the answer to my recent dilemma of how to pay for my daughter’s private operation (see ‘Circle of Life’ blog).  I have been divorced now for about 16 years but when I did get married some 28 years ago, I was given a few pieces of gold and silver jewelry by the Turkish relatives of my ex-husband.  Talk about shooting myself in the foot, though, as at the time I let it be known that I preferred wearing silver to gold – if only I had given the significance of the custom more thought – but the couple of gold items I did receive have sat in a box unworn all these years so I feel thankful that I was given them and that they have gone towards the recovery of my precious daughter and her dream.

    We all hit tough times at some point in our lives and I suppose the biggest lesson to learn is how to cope and how to turn things around if you can.  And it also important that what you regard as a tough time might not be one for someone else – we all have different degrees we can cope with.   When you think of those poor refugees, most of us have rosy lives in comparison and, if you know someone who is suffering in some way at the moment, you will realize how lucky you are.  I feel very fortunate that I have raised two great kids who I am very proud of, and who are travelling the world doing interesting things; I feel so, so lucky that I live in a place of beauty and solitude; and I feel that in spite of the strain of middle age settling itself a little too comfortably around my middle, menopause invading my equilibrium like a steam engine, and a few stiff joints that make me feel like a wooden toy in need of some lubrication around the hinges, I seem to be in passable nick so, in order to continue in that vein, I just have to drum up enough work to keep things afloat. It sounds so simple but it isn’t.

    Gone are the days of the understanding bank manager who would listen to my story of giving up work to look after my elderly mother who has dementia – with no social services to speak of there was no choice; instead I have a faceless voice on the end of the phone telling me that if I don’t pay my mortgage the bank will take legal action. It doesn’t seem to matter that I have had accounts with the same bank for 40 years and that I have been paying mortgages and insurances for a big chunk of that time. But, regrettably, in the age we live in the human story is not one to interest the people who pull the strings.

    And so I am forcing myself to do things I would normally shy away from – public appearances, public speaking, live cooking, possibly even TV  – but it doesn’t happen overnight, it all takes time to build up and it will take even longer for me to build up my confidence. I am lucky to be surrounded by people who believe in me (Pennie, Phil, Lydie, Kirsten, Tim, to name a few – a big ‘thankyou’) and who gently nudge me to do these things, the most recent being a live cook-off at the Food on Film Festival. Because I am not a natural showman (or showwoman, for that matter), I decided to perform in a similar way to my workshops, going for a bit of audience participation rather than all the focus on me.

    Laksa by Ghillie BasanAs I was cooking a big vat of Singapore Laksa, it was quite easy to do as there is a lot of pounding with a mortar and pestle and grinding of roasted spices and there is very little room for things to go wrong, other than perhaps to tip the entire Laksa over the floor which, luckily, I managed to avoid. And, as our hobs were electric, I didn’t do the other culinary trick I am famous for – burning my boobs when leaning over the gas flame! So, all in all, it was pretty relaxing and accident free as I gently stirred while members of the audience were able to pound and grind and have a whiff of the aromas as they circulated and I enjoyed some banter with my cook-off competitor, the well-known chef and food Ambasasador, Chris Trotter, who was skillfully preparing 3 dishes to my one!   So, as a number of people asked for it at the Festival, here is the recipe for my laidback Laksa.

    Singapore laksa

    I often use chunks of good Scottish salmon in my laksa but you can add any firm-fleshed fish of your choice, or shellfish like scallops and prawns. If you’re vegetarian, the laksa is delicious made with chunks of butternut squash and vegans can just substitute the ghee with coconut oil. The key to a tasty laksa is to make a strong-flavoured rempah (the base spice paste) so don’t be bashful with your quantities of ginger, chillies and lemongrass.

    Serves 6-8

    For the rempah

    4-6 dried red chillies, soaked in water for 2-4 days to soften, deseeded and roughly chopped
    4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
    a big nob of fresh ginger (like a giant thumb and forefinger), peeled and chopped
    4 lemongrass stalks, trimmed and chopped
    sea salt
    6-8 macademia nuts
    1 tablespoon cumin seeds
    1 tablespoon coriander seeds
    1 heaped tablespoon ghee (or coconut oil)
    2 red onions, or 6-8 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
    1 tablespoon crumbled or shaved jaggery (raw palm sugar), or honey
    1-2 tablespoons ground turmeric
    3 x 400ml tins of coconut milk
    400ml chicken or vegetable stock (or 1 more tin of coconut milk)
    1-2 tablespoons fish sauce (optional)
    2 tablespoons soy sauce (optional)
    a big bunch of fresh coriander, finely chopped
    450g fresh egg or rice noodles
    4- 6 skinned fresh salmon fillets, cut into bite-size chunks.
    sea salt
    2-4 limes, cut into segments

    Using a mortar and pestle, pound the soaked chillies, garlic, ginger and lemongrass to form a coarse paste. Add some salt to act as abrasive and keep pounding, then add the macadamia nuts which help to form a thick and creamy paste. Your paste won’t be super smooth and it is nice to have some texture in the laksa so don’t worry if doesn’t seem perfect.

    In a small heavy-based pan, dry roast the cumin and coriander seeds until they darken slightly and emit a nutty aroma. Tip them into a spice grinder and grind them into a deliciously aromatic powder.

    Heat the ghee in a large wok, or a large heavy-based pot. Stir in the onions, until they begin to soften, and stir in the spice paste. Keep stirring, until the paste emits a lovely aroma, then stir in the jaggery, ground roasted spices and the turmeric. Pour in the coconut milk and stock so that the paste and spices don’t burn and bring the liquid to the boil, stirring gently from time to time. Add the fish and soy sauces – these are optional as they add a bit of salty depth to the laksa but you can just season with enough salt on its own – and stir in half the chopped coriander. Reduce the heat and simmer gently, giving it an occasional stir, for at least 30 minutes to allow the flavours to mingle.

    Taste the laksa and adjust the seasoning. If you’re a chilli fan, you can add some finely chopped fresh or dried chilli at this stage. Stir in the noodles and add the chunks of salmon, making sure they are submerged in the liquid for 1-2 minutes – the salmon barely needs to be cooked as it will continue to cook in the heat of the soup in your bowl. Spoon the laksa into bowls, scatter the rest of the chopped coriander over the top, and squeeze a segment of lime over it. Enjoy this delicious, warming bowl of soupy noodles with chop sticks if you can.


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  • Food Safari: The Circle of Life

    November 2016

    I’m sitting in a private hospital in Glasgow while my daughter is in the theatre having surgery.  She has had a long frustrating haul with a ski injury, made all the more frustrating by the delays and lack of communication from the NHS so, in order to get her back on her feet and instructing in the Alps, we have had to take the private route with a well-known specialist who instills confidence and positivity but costs a pretty buck. So I’m sitting here worrying and wondering how on earth I am going to afford it.

    Being a single parent, the struggle to pay bills is familiar territory but, because my work has taken a back seat for the last couple of years while I’ve been looking after my elderly mother, my finances have been crippled. In spite of the difficulties I now face, I don’t regret giving up everything to look after my mother as I was able to bring her joy and comfort while she succumbed to dementia – such a cruel disease and so hard to witness as it transforms the person you know and love into a stranger – well, almost. Dementia crept up on my mother slowly, altering the vibrant personality of a very hospitable and social woman to one who was frightened, confused and, at times, aggressive. At first the changes in behaviour were easy to confuse with changes caused by her intake of alcohol, which had been a feature of her adult life, so I had to learn to recognize the changes caused solely by dementia and adjust to them in different ways in order to keep her calm and to protect her dignity.  In between the moments of agitation, frustration and memory loss, there have been many of moments of lucid thought, great laughter, hope and determination. For as long as possible, it was important to let her feel she was in control of her life, her finances, and her decisions, but she did need care and she did need company. In short, I had to be there for her.

    When my life became utterly consumed by the needs of my mother, even with the patience and help of live-in carers and loyal visits from friends and neighbors, a fall landed her in hospital, which led to a respite stay in a Residential Home.  When she went in, I knew she wouldn’t come out. She thought she would. It was heart wrenching to see her sadness and desperation when it dawned on her that she was there to stay and I felt so guilty about leaving her. I tried to make her room as homely as possible, found a home for her dog and visited almost every day with flowers, fruit, tasty nibbles and bottles of non-alcoholic wine but she continued to plead with me to take her home – to my home as it is the only place she thinks of as home.  I felt I had given her a life sentence, which in a sense I had.

    It has been a couple of months now and she has finally settled in. Her dementia has definitely got worse – sitting in a chair dozing for long hours will do that to you – but she is comfortable and superbly looked after. She still beams a wonderful toothless smile when I appear and she remembers my name but I think she has now forgotten who I am in relation to her. When one of the other residents commented that she had a ‘wonderful, caring daughter’, she gave a huge, appreciative smile, saying in enthusiastic agreement ‘I do indeed have a caring daughter’, but I don’t think she realized that it was her daughter who was right beside her. I should be able to relax a little now and pick up the pieces of my broken life and pitiful finances but, after six years of caring and companionship, it is not easy to let go. It is a little bit like the first day of primary school when your little one doesn’t want to let go of your hand and, although you know you should, you don’t really want to let go either. When you turn to go, you feel empty and lost and, unless you have another little one to attend to, it takes a little time to fill the void. That is how I feel right now.

    I do, however, have others to attend to – both of my children have grown up but they still need help with things, love coming home and, like most mums, I am needed in their more stressful moments, hence the hours at the hospital worrying about my daughter’s operation and her chances of being able to continue her ski career.  As a parent, you never stop worrying and you never stop being needed and then your elderly parents need you too – when you are middle-aged you are literally caught in the middle. Of course, it is the natural circle of life – you bring up your children, you look after your parents and hopefully your children will look after you – but what that life circle never tells you is how hard that is going to be and what sacrifices you have to make.

    With my mother now in a Home, everyone tells me I need to take some time for myself but the reality is that I have to get my butt into gear and work harder than before. Being self-employed, it is not easy to generate work when it has been sitting for so long on the back seat and I only have four days in a week to do it as I usually visit my mother on the other three. So, for the first time I am keeping my snug little holiday cottage open for winter in the hope that some people will be looking for adventure in the snow; I am running cookery workshops through the winter too with an emphasis on warming spices which will feature in; I am back on Radio Scotland after a long absence and hope to make regular appearances in the coming year; I am finishing a book that I have been writing for several years but have had to put down too often to take care of my mother; I’m working on a new catering idea which I hope to launch in the spring; and perhaps my biggest of challenge of all is that I have finally entered the world of social media by joining Facebook as I realize I will only get back on my feet by letting people out there know that I exist!

    tumeric-pickleSo, all you lovely followers of my blog please do encourage your family and friends to come on a workshop or to stay in my cottage, please become a friend on Facebook (my page will look a bit silly if I don’t have any ‘friends’!) and please follow the new spice blog which I will try to post monthly. I will also continue to share stories of travel, family life and food here on my Food Safari blog so, in keeping with that theme, I’m going to leave you now with one of my mother’s recipes. She loved cooking and entertaining and was a great follower of Elizabeth David, Constance Spry, and Claire Macdonald – dinner party recipes you can rely on, she would always say – but my favourite memories of her food are very specific: the picnic at Suswa Caves in Kenya where, surrounded by baboons, she produced the most succulent rabbit cooked in white wine kept hot in a thermos flask; the small soft and chewy meringues she would make for my children, who would pinch them when she wasn’t looking as they were under strict instruction to wait until pudding; her delicious pecan pie – a family legend – that she adapted from a Maryland cookery book she bought when we lived in Baltimore; and her Bread and Butter Pickles, also an American recipe, which she used to make in huge batches in Kenya and I would devour them like a salad with my supper. My son does the same when I make them at home and he makes them for himself when he is at college so here is a recipe for a batch of our Circle of Life pickles!

    Turmeric pickles

    2 cucumbers, finely sliced,
    4-5 golden or red onions, finely sliced
    4-5 bell peppers (any colour), finely sliced
    2 tablespoons salt
    1.2 litres (2 pints) cider vinegar
    450g (1lb) soft brown sugar
    1-2 tablespoons ground turmeric
    1 tablespoon mustard seeds
    2 teaspoons pickling spice

    Tip the sliced cucumber, onion, and pepper into a large bowl and toss in the salt. Cover the bowl with a clean dishtowel and leave for at least 6 hours, or overnight, to let the salt draw out all the juices.  Drain and rinse well, then pat dry with the clean dishtowel.

    Heat the vinegar with the sugar and spices, stirring all the time until the sugar has dissolved, and bring the liquid to the boil. Tip in the sliced cucumber, onion and pepper, bring the liquid back to boiling point, then turn off the heat, cover with a clean dishtowel and leave the vegetables to cool in the pickling liquid. Spoon the pickles into storage jars and keep in a cool place for a week before eating. Once opened, I keep mine in the fridge where they last for months – unless my son is home!

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  • The Language of Food: Turkey

    May 2016

    CNV00052I get a buzz from learning languages and make a point of it when I travel. The fact that I am even trying to pronounce words opens many doors and makes people happy.  There are a couple of languages I rely on for my work but there are others, like Japanese, in which I only know a few phrases that I learnt a long time ago but those simple words bring great merriment to every Japanese encounter. There is, however, a language we can all speak – the language of food. In all its notes of pleasure, surprise, disgust, and greed, the language is global, superbly punctuated by the splendid silence of pure appreciation. Take the food language of the French, for example, with their oohs and aahs, the pursing and smacking of the lips, the exaggerated hand-gestures emphasizing surprise and satisfaction, and the chunk of fresh baguette wiped around the plate to mop up every dribble of yummy goodness– we are not left in any doubt as to whether they are enjoying their food or not.

    But what do you know of the Turkish language with its soft and melodic notes when spoken with eloquence? What do you know about the Turkish language of food? There are the recognizable, universal hand-gestures and mannerisms and there are rituals dictated or encouraged by the Islamic faith, but there are also many unique words and phrases dedicated to the subject – expressions of welcome and greeting and enjoyment of the food; praise for the cook and blessings of health to the cook’s hands; metaphors and sayings for the ingredients; myths, legends and religious stories attached to the dish. Food is a never-ending topic of conversation, sometimes of heated debate, but like the French, it is always expressed with dramatic passion and enthusiasm. With the current spotlight on the refugee crisis and the turbulent politics of Turkey, it is easy to forget that it is a nation of warm hospitality and fabulous food and I am genuinely feeling for the country right now. There is a saying ‘greet a Turk and be sure you will eat’ as food is offered and shared wherever you go. If only politics was like food – uniting us around a table of pleasure, instead of creating vast divides.

    IMG_1448One of my favourite cities in the world is Istanbul. The atmospheric history of the spice trade and lavish Ottoman banquets oozes from the pores of the old city walls. Under one culinary roof, you can taste the spicy and hearty traditional dishes from different pockets of Anatolia alongside the more refined Ottoman classics, referred to as Saray (Palace) cooking. I used to sit on the balcony of my office high above the impatient tooting of car horns at the Tünel end of Istiklal Caddesi, marveling at the silent glide of the Russian tankers traveling from the Black Sea to the Aegean, or the old wooden boats, originally from the Clyde, ferrying people from the Golden Horn on the European side across the Bosphorus to Asia. I would look over to the Topkapı Palace, the seat of the Ottoman Empire, perched strategically on a hill to give the Sultans a splendid view of the sea routes and listen to the Call for Prayer echo across the water. At the height of the spice trade when the Ottomans and Spaniards ruled the seas, magnificence must have been wafting in the air, not just in Süleyman’s name!

    Years later, stuffed into a backpack, my little blonde daughter, Yazzie, would sing and giggle as people reached up to touch her, calling her malek (angel) as they gave her dried apricots, a fresh fig, a pinch of the cheeks, or a kiss. When she was able to run around on her own, it was my son, Zeki, who was stuffed into the backpack and given the same treatment, although he was called aslan (lion), an affectionate term for young boys, as they ruffled his white curly locks. We were always on the hunt for good meze (Turkish spelling), steered by my old friend and food enthusiast, Hasan, who would take us to the latest, the most unique, or most traditional meyhane where we would be fed and looked after like pampered pashas.  The culinary landscape of Istanbul is like one giant moveable feast and no trip is complete without a stop at my special spice merchant, Devrim bey at Nil Baharat in Eminönü.  Perched on a stool, sipping hot tea from a tulip-shaped glass, it is difficult to exercise restraint as the sacks of potent spices tease my appetite. Before I know it, I’ve ordered 100g ground sumak, 250g ground salep (orchid root), 500g oiled kırmızı biber (ground red chilli peppers), cumin, cinnamon, dried oregano and sage, ground pistachios, saffron, boxes of sakız (mastic), several bottles of pomegranate molasses and, from a nearby stall, fine coffee and a jar of mildly hallucengenic deli bal (‘silly honey’ from the nectar of poppies).

    For over 30 years I have expressed my own private love affair with Turkey and her food through cookery workshops, numerous articles, and at least 6 books – I would happily write more as there are few places in the world with so much fascinating history on a plate. When I wrote my first book on Turkish food some 20 years ago, there were no others like it on the market and, to my surprise, it was shortlisted for two of the big food awards at the time, but now there are many books on the subject, some by people who’ve only been there for a brief touristic visit and some by people who have never been there at all!  Such is the reliance on the Internet, enabling people to write about a country and its culinary traditions without any first-hand knowledge or experience, which can lead to many linguistic and cultural misunderstandings.

    CNV00067For example, the current misuse of the word humus (hummus in Arabic), which simply means ‘chickpea’ and is also the name of the ubiquitous dish made with them when they are mashed or pureed, but fashionable foodies boldly give the label ‘hummus’ to any moosh, be it mashed feta with crushed olives or pureed butternut squash with cream cheese. And the frequent appearance of menemen and shakshuka on the metropolitan breakfast menu has led to some interesting claims of their origins.  Similar in content and popular as street and bus station food, one dish is Turkish the other is Arab.  Commonly referred to as a vegetable omelette in Turkey, menemen is prepared with sautéed peppers and tomatoes into which eggs are either cracked and left to set whole, or they can be stirred into the mixture and left to set like an omelette. Found throughout the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, shakshuka (şakşuka in Turkish) is of Arab origin and has many regional variations but the eggs are cracked into it and left to cook whole as  ‘shak’ implies that the egg is ‘cracked’ into the dish.

    But does all of this matter? Are people really bothered about the origins, or the correct use of food language? Perhaps not in the world of food fads but I think it does matter to the people of the country.  The physical language of food may be universally understood but the culinary terminology and its cultural meaning is special to each culture. So, Özlem my friend, I think it is time we write that definitive book on Turkish food that we have been talking about. We need to introduce more Laz and Güney traditions and dig deep into the culinary foundations of Kayseri and Gaziantep. Meanwhile, for authentic Turkish food cooked by a lovely Turkish lady please check out Özlem Warren’s site, follow her on Facebook and Linked in, and sign up for one of her courses. She’s the real deal and passionate about her nation’s food:

    I am going to leave you with 3 of my favourite recipes – one of ancient origin, one uniquely Anatolian, and one Ottoman delight from the palace kitchens.

    Afiyet olsun!

    Fırında Mantı

    The first Turks to inhabit the region were tribal warriors who moved westwards on horseback through Central Asia, bringing with them their traditions of preserving meat in its fat and a noodle dough reminiscent of a Chinese dumpling. Traditionally, the noodle dough is stuffed, baked in the oven until crisp, then revived with stock and served with garlic-flavoured yogurt and a drizzle of melted butter. It falls somewhere between a dumpling and Italian pasta. Modern recipes often call for a boiled ravioli-style mantı but the traditional Anatolian dish is supreme in its uniqueness. The best mantı I have ever had was in fact made by a Russian woman married to a Turk who ran a tiny mantı house in the back streets of Istanbul which was packed with appreciators of his wife’s freshly made noodle dumplings.

    Serves 4-6

    For the dough:

    450g/1lb plain flour
    ½ teaspoon salt
    1 egg + egg yolk, lightly beaten
    roughly 50ml/2fl oz lukewarm water

    For the filling:

    225g/8oz finely minced lamb or beef
    1 onion, very finely chopped
    1 teaspoon ground cumin
    1 teaspoon ground coriander
    1-2 teaspoons finely chopped dried red chilli
    a small bunch of parsley, very finely chopped

    600ml/1pint chicken or beef stock
    roughly 500g/9oz creamy plain yogurt (I use Yeo Valley)
    2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
    salt and freshly ground black pepper
    1-2 tablespoons ghee or butter
    1 teaspoon finely chopped dried red chilli
    2 teaspoons dried mint or oregan

    Preheat oven to 400F/Mark 6/200C

    Sift the flour and salt into bowl. Make a well in the centre and pour in the beaten egg. Using your fingers, draw in the flour with splashes of water until it forms a dough. Knead for 5 minutes, cover with a damp cloth, and leave to rest for 1 hour.

    Meanwhile, tip all the ingredients for the filling into a bowl, season with salt, and knead well. Beat the yogurt in a bowl with the garlic and season to taste with salt and pepper.

    Roll out the dough and cut it into 4 pieces. Roll each piece as thinly as possible and cut into squares (approx. 1”/2.5cm square). Put a little of the filling into the middle of each square then bunch together the 4 corners to form a little parcel with a slight opening at the top.

    Lightly grease an oven dish and place the mantı, side by side, in it so that they are tightly packed. Put the dish in the oven for about 20 minutes until the mantı are golden brown.

    Bring the stock to the boil. Take the mantı out of the oven and pour the stock over them. Cover with aluminium foil and pop them back in to the oven for 15 minutes, until the mantı have absorbed the liquid.

    Quickly melt the butter or ghee and stir in the chopped chilli. Serve the mantı straight from the oven with the yogurt spooned over the top, then drizzled with the butter and sprinkled with the dried mint or oregano.

    Hot humus heaven

    This is heaven in a clay dish! Sometimes things taste better in their utensil of origin – a wok, a tagine, a clay pot – so if you have an oven-proof clay dish, use it. I first had this humus 30 years ago in a tiny village near Kars in Eastern Anatolia. I had been travelling in PKK territory with a Kurdish-speaking colleague and, in order to decrease our vulnerability at road blocks, we filled the car with locals, one of whom invited us to spend the night in his tiny stone dwelling where his wife prepared this moreish, warm chickpea concoction topped with a puddle of melted ghee. As we dipped chunks of freshly baked flat breads into it, we really had a moment in heaven. Needless to say, I have been writing about it and enthusiastically devouring it ever since – even my Turkish friends were unaware of its existence.

    Serves 4-6

    2 x 400g cans of chickpeas, drained and thoroughly rinsed
    2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
    2 teaspoons cumin seeds
    roughly 4 tablespoons olive oil
    juice of 1 lemon
    2 tablespoons tahini
    6-7 tablespoons thick, creamy yogurt
    sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
    2-3 tablespoons pine nuts
    1-2 tablespoons butter, or ghee
    1 teaspoon finely chopped dried red chilli

    Preheat the oven to 400F/mark 6/200C

    Instead of using a mortar and pestle to pound the chickpeas to a paste in the traditional manner, make life easy and tip the chickpeas into an electric blender. Add the cumin seeds, garlic, olive oil, and lemon and whiz the mixture to a thick paste. Add the tahini and continue to whiz until the mixture is really thick and smooth. Add the yogurt and whiz until the mixture has loosened a little and the texture is creamy – the yogurt makes the humus lighter and mousse-like when cooked. Season to taste with salt and pepper and tip the mixture into a clay pot, or ovenproof dish.

    Roast the pine nuts in small pan until they begin to brown and emit a nutty aroma. Add the butter, or ghee, to the pine nuts and stir until it melts. Stir in the finely chopped chilli and spoon the mixture over the surface of the humus. Pop the dish into the oven for about 20 minutes, until the hummus has risen a little and most of the butter has been absorbed.

    Serve immediately – it is best when it is still hot – with chunks of warm crusty loaf, or strips of toasted pitta bread, and enjoy this divine chickpea puree with marinated olives and a salad.

    Tavuk göğsü kazandibi

    I love this pudding. My kids love this pudding. So did the Ottoman sultans as it is one of the delights from the Palace kitchen. Crucial to the pleasure of the pudding are the fine threads of cooked chicken, which must be thin enough to add texture but not so thick they are detectably meaty. Sounds bizarre? I assure you it is truly scrumptious! If, for no reason other than novelty, these thick, creamy puddings with a lightly burnt bottom are well worth trying and you might even be won over!

     Serves 6-8, or more

    1 chicken breast
    5 tablespoons rice flour
    850ml/1½ pints milk
    300ml/½ pint cream
    a pinch of salt
    175g/6oz sugar
    ground cinnamon for dusting

    Place the chicken breast in a pan with enough water to just cover it. Bring the water to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the breast is cooked. Drain the breast and tear it into very, very fine threads – almost as fine as thread for a needle.

    In a bowl, slake the rice flour with a little of the milk to form a smooth paste, the consistency of thick double cream. Pour the rest of the milk and the cream into a heavy-based pot. Add the salt and sugar and bring it to the boil, stirring all the time, until the sugar has dissolved. Add a ladleful of the hot milk to the slaked rice flour, then tip it all into the pot and stir vigorously. Reduce the heat, stirring all the time, until the mixture begins to thicken. Gently beat in the threads of chicken and continue to simmer until the mixture is very thick.

    Lightly grease a wide, non-stick, heavy-based frying pan and place it over the heat. When hot, tip the mixture into it and keep it over the heat for about 2 minutes to brown, or slightly burn, the bottom of the pudding – you can check by gently levering up an edge to peep beneath. Reduce the heat and move the pan around for 2-3 minutes to make sure the bottom is evenly browned – a little bit burnt is fine, but you are not looking for a charred pudding! Turn off the heat and leave the pudding to cool in the pan.

    Using a sharp-pointed knife cut the pudding into small rectangles. Lift each rectangle out of the pan, using a spatula, and place them on a flat surface, burnt-side down. Roll each one over slightly, like rolling someone over in bed, so that the burnt side is up and the two long edges of the rectangle form a seam underneath. Place them seem-side down on a serving dish, cover them, and keep in the refrigerator. Serve chilled with a dusting of cinnamon.


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  • Journeys of Inspiration

     January 2016

    Northern Lights from our deck

    Northern Lights from our deck

    First, I must thank all of you who have subscribed to my blog – I am flattered there are so many of you – and I apologize for taking so long to update this section of my website. Aside from the trips described in this blog and the hours I work into the night, a huge chunk of my time is spent with my elderly mother who has dementia and, although this means I have to put many projects on hold and I have to turn down the ones that will take me away for long periods of time, I know my mother lives for my visits and would deteriorate fast if I didn’t spend the time with her. I’m sure many of you will understand what I mean.

    This year, though, began with the awesome sight of the Northern lights – as if on cue they appeared just before midnight illuminating the sky as we toasted the New Year with champagne and good friends – some old, some new, and some, like my Finnish friend, Outi, happy with the bortsch and smoked salmon but missing a good sauna – a perfect beginning to what I hope will be a year of researching and creating projects to keep me out of mischief for the years ahead when I hope to continue with a series of journeys of inspiration – for myself and for others.

    Zeki at Yosemite National Park

    Zeki at Yosemite National Park

    The first of these journeys was for my son, Zeki, who at 15 years old won a national award for Excellence in Mountain Culture and used the privilege to seek sponsorship to make a film – in Yosemite National Park with a view to inspiring other young people to explore and conserve wild places by showing them the landscape that captivated John Muir in 1900s and drove him to fight for the conservation of our wilderness and the creation of the national parks. As I had to accompany him for part of the journey in California – fortunately not on the 72 mile trek in the peaks of the High Sierras as I found myself slightly breathless and dizzy at 9,000ft – I tied in some publicity for my book, Flavours of the Middle East, in San Fransisco, the highlight of which was a very enjoyable radio chat with the young and charming Joel Riddell on the popular show, Dining Around.

    The second of these journeys of inspiration was with Zeki again. It started with the launch of my new book, Mezze, in Cape Town – an event steered by the effervescently charming, Karen Dudley – – best known in the Cape for her little lunch spot, the Kitchen, a den of delicious salads and voluptuous ‘Love Sandwiches’ which she prepares specially to suit the mood and character of each individual. So powerful is the lure of these sandwiches filled with love, the Obamas made a beeline for them on their presidential tour to South Africa.

    While publicizing my book in the Cape, we squeezed in a quick detour to see my daughter, Yazzie, who was surfing up the coast and to see my dear friend, Monica von Habsburg, in Mozambique. Amidst the dry, dusty chaos of Tete, her lovely villa  is like an oasis on the banks of the River Zambezi where the hippos wander into her garden at night. David Livingstone would have passed right by the location of her property on his way up the river but I’m sure he wasn’t presented with a crystal bowl of chilled pureed mangoes, freshly picked that morning. From there my son and I went to Namibia to spend some time with a small group of Bushmen in the Kalahari, almost at the border with Botswana, and to stay in a very special bush camp on the Skeleton Coast.

    Mezze Small Plates to Share

    Mezze (new book)

    As my own roots began amongst the different tribes of East Africa and the anthropological nature of my work has taken me into remote villages in different parts of the world, it seems natural that my son should develop a passion for the traditional bushcraft and wilderness skills of indigenous peoples and feel right at home with the Jul’haansi tribe. He took with him gifts of flint and steel, chagga (a fungus that grows on birch trees used for carrying fire from one camp to another), bush knives and sharpening stones and he demonstrated some of our ancestral skills to the tribal hunter and elders. They were delighted with their gifts and broke off bits of chagga to stuff into their pipes along with dried porcupine droppings– if something is worth smoking, it is worth a lot! The children, some as young as 4 or 5 years old, watched with fascination and expertly cut up sisal and fruit with the sharp knives. The importance of learning and preserving traditional skills should never be underestimated in our technological age and Zeki was there to learn but he was also there to make the acquaintance with the tribe so that he can return frequently to help preserve their traditions. Together, we learnt a lot about the edible and medicinal herbs and fruit, how to make the poison for the arrows, and Zeki dug up a root to make his own bow and quiver. According to the Bushmen, he was ready to select a bride!

    From the window of our bush plane, the remote camp at the Skeleton Coast was well camouflaged with sand-coloured tents set between rocky outcrops. It was a very special place on every level – the hospitality, the food, the sighting of the desert-adapted elephants and lions, in particular the 5 muscateers (5 young male lions) and their researcher, the remarkable conservationist Dr Flip Stander – and we ended our stay with a journey by Land Cruiser over the singing dunes to the seal colonies at the coast where there is a small museum with the dates of all the shipwrecks recorded in the 50s, 60s and 70s, until a lighthouse was erected in 1978. The only year there wasn’t a shipwreck in the 60s was in 1967 – the very year that I sailed with my family down the Skeleton Coast, round Cape Point, and up the other side to Mombasa to start our life in Kenya – what luck we must have had!

    To complete the extraordinary experience of this deserted and eerily stunning coastline, our guide laid out a table and safari chairs right on the beach where we could watch the seals bombing in and out of the waves while we enjoyed a bottle of wine with meat balls, grilled chicken, and a refreshing pasta salad flavoured with curry spices and coriander. We returned to camp by bush plane, which flew quite low over the sea as it took off, affording us a bird’s eye view of sharks swimming alarmingly close to the shore – not a comforting sight for a mother whose daughter was surfing further round the coastline in South Africa. The female pilot only made it worse by declaring that nothing would induce her to surf in these waters as she often spotted sharks, including great whites, right behind the surfers! I was glad to get Yazzie home.

    As I have said in my introduction to this blog page, food is memories, so I’m going to end here with the pasta salad we had at the Skeleton Coast.

    Hoanib pasta salad

    I wouldn’t rave about the food in Namibia – a lot of German influence and heavily reliant on big chunks of meat – but the cook at the remote tented camp on the Skeleton Coast produced the best meals we had on our trip. With a smile as big as Africa, she managed to whip up amazingly fresh and tasty dishes using vegetables, herbs and spices which had to come in to camp by bush plane and was a refreshing change in a world of heavy meat. This pasta salad has become a favourite in our house and it keeps well in the fridge.

    For a big bowl to serve 4-6, or more if part of a spread:

    roughly 500g penne, cooked to al dente, drained and refreshed
    2-3 yellow and red bell peppers, finely chopped
    6-8 spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced
    roughly 250g small, sweet tomatoes (eg. cherry, sugar drop, tomalini), cut into quarters
    a big bunch of fresh coriander, finely chopped

    For the dressing:

    150ml/¼ pt olive or rapeseed oil
    150ml/¼ pt white wine vinegar
    juice of 2 lemons
    1-2 tablespoons runny honey
    2-3 garlic cloves, crushed
    1-2 tablespoons mild curry spice
    2 teaspoons ground ginger
    sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

    Put the pasta into a large bowl and add the finely chopped peppers, spring onions, tomatoes, and coriander.

    In a small bowl, beat together the dressing ingredients and season well. Make sure the dressing is strong and adjust the spice and sweetness according to your taste – my son always adds more my honey to my dressing as that’s how he likes it.

    Pour the dressing over the pasta and peppers and toss really well. Tip the salad into a serving bowl and enjoy for lunch or supper with grilled meats, fish, other vegetarian dishes, or simply on its own.


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  • So where did it all begin?

    June 2015

    Ghillie in Africa

    Ghillie in Africa

    According to my parents, it all began in 1963 when I was ten months old. Heading to America, where my father was due to work in the Johns Hopkins Hospital, we set sail from Greenock on the Empress of England and it was on this voyage, they say, that I shunned baby food for olives, anchovies and savoury canapes which were slipped to me by friendly ship stewards. My little hand reached out every time a tray passed by me and my taste buds were tickled forever more.

    After America, we moved to East Africa, where my palate was further widened by the gamey flavours of roasted and smoked guinea fowl, impala, kongoni, waterbuck and 110lbs of Nile perch, which my mother caught in the crocodile-infested waters of Lake Turkana.

    The Nile perch narrowly missed the Guinness Book of Records but we ate it for days – for breakfast, lunch and supper! My memories of childhood are peppered with happy images of my brother and I tucking into big, juicy mangoes and pawpaws for breakfast, drinking gallons of homemade passionfruit juice, climbing trees for fresh loquats, and using chunks of skinned snake to bait the talapia in the rivers.

    Ghillie Basan with her children in Scotland. Photo copyright: John Paul Photography.

    Ghillie with her children in Scotland

    In the kitchen I picked ants out of the sugar and took baking lessons with a plump lady called Bunty.  And when the wide African skies burst with heavy rain, we rushed outside with butterfly nets to catch the white-winged termites that took to the air en masse. Once we had a full bucket, I helped our cook pluck off the wings before he fried them in butter and garlic – an African delicacy reminiscent of fried prawns.

    The experience of living in the wide, open spaces of East Africa has been at the core of everything I have done since. It is why I studied Social Anthropology at university; it is why a remote glen in the Scottish hills is my sanctuary; and it is at the root of my travels and passion for learning about different cultures and food – not the food on my plate, but the story behind it.

    The combination of food and anthropology has taken me on many memorable journeys through some of the most ancient culinary cultures of the world where I have had the chance to enjoy dishes that few have ever even heard of.

    Ironically, I have settled in an old cottage in the Scottish Highlands where the traditional dish is a bowl of thick porridge. Battered by blizzards and snowbound in winter, I have single-handedly raised my children here, putting on our cross-country skis to ski to school while the sun is rising and to ski back home in the clear moonlight, or with head torches to guide our way in the mist.

    When it comes to food, I have to bring up the supplies in a backpack or on a sleigh and, in my warm kitchen with views to the hills, I run what must be the most remote cookery workshops in the UK.

    As this is my first blog, I would like to share two recipes from my childhood in Kenya.  I prepared both for The Inner Child series on Radio Scotland and the pawpaw recipe also featured in my Commonwealth Series for Radio Scotland’s Kitchen Café.

    Masai Mara

    This dish is interesting because it crops up in the safari lodges of Kenya and Tanzania – particularly those located in the Masai Mara – but it is originally an Arab dish and would have come to the shores of East Africa with the early Arab traders. The Middle Eastern version of this dish is called Muhammara in Arabic. It is delicious served with warm crusty bread or crudité to dip in it, but it is also served in the lodges as a sauce for grilled or roasted chicken and guinea fowl.

    Serves 4-6 as a dip

    3 red bell peppers
    2-3 tablespoons olive oil
    2 slices white bread broken into small pieces
    juice of 2 lemons
    3-4 cloves garlic, crushed
    4 tablespoons roasted pecan nuts
    2 teaspoons roasted ground cumin
    1 tablespoon runny honey
    1-2 teaspoons finely chopped dried chilli
    1 teaspoon dried mint
    sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
    a small bunch fresh coriander, finely chopped
    Roast the peppers in olive oil in the oven for 30-40 minutes until the skin is buckled and charred.

    Put the bread into a bowl, pour over the lemon juice, and leave to soak.

    Skin the peppers, deseed them and roughly chop the flesh. Put the flesh into a blender with the roasting oil, garlic, and pecan nuts and whiz to a thick paste. Add the soaked bread, cumin, honey, dried chillies, and mint and whiz with a little extra oil until smooth and thick.

    Season to taste and beat in most of the fresh coriander. Tip the mixture into a bowl, garnish with the rest, of the coriander, and serve with chunks of crusty bread, strips of toasted pitta bread, or with thin batons of raw carrot and celery.

    Pawpaw and lentils with coconut milk and lime 

    Our cook used to prepare this dish when the local pawpaws (papayas) were slightly unripe and firm. We often had ripe, juicy pawpaw for breakfast but I always found it fascinating when the Africans would use fruit like a vegetable in savoury dishes – small, firm bananas are often cooked this way too. Quick and easy, this recipe is a favourite in our family.

    Serves 4

    1-2 tablespoons ghee
    1 onion, finely chopped
    a big knob of fresh ginger (roughly 50g), finely chopped
    3-4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
    1-2 teaspoons coriander seeds
    1-2 teaspoons cumin seeds
    1 tablespoon grated or crumbled jaggery, or honey
    2 teaspoons harissa paste
    3 medium-sized firm pawpaws (papayas), peeled, seeded and cut into bite-sized chunks
    250g lentils, (brown or green), cooked to al dente
    400ml coconut milk
    a bunch fresh coriander, finely chopped
    sea salt
    freshly ground black pepper
    200ml double cream
    1-2 limes, cut into quarters

    Heat the ghee in a heavy-based pan and stir in the onion, ginger, garlic, coriander and cumin seeds for 2-3 minutes. Add the jaggery and stir until the onions begin to colour.

    Stir in the harissa paste, then toss in the pawpaw chunks, coating them in the spices. Add the lentils for 1-2 minutes, stir in the coconut milk, and cook gently for 10 minutes.

    Toss in most of the coriander and season well to taste. Drizzle the cream over the top and scatter the rest of the coriander on top. Serve hot with lime wedges to squeeze into it.

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